Empedocles in the Nuremberg Chronicle. Public Domain.
Empedocles in the Nuremberg Chronicle. Public Domain.

Empedocles (c. 490 – c. 430 BC) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher. He thought himself to be a god among men, and as legend goes, jumped into a volcano to prove that he was immortal; needless to say he died.

He is known as the person to come up with cosmogenic theory of the four Classical elements. This essentially was the belief that all things were made up of the elements, earth fire air and water. The elements themselves believed not to change; just moving around and combining with each other.

He also proposed forces called Love and Strife which would act as forces to bring about the mixture and separation of the elements. He thought them to be constantly at battle with one another:

  • Love, responsible for bringing the elements together to make up things around us, as well as human emotion (this force of love is actually what caused humans to feel sexual attraction towards each other)
  • Strife, continually trying to separate the elements apart and break them down (driving people away from each other and creating problems)

He thought of the result of this constant battle to be the changing world around us.

Empedocles is also credited with the first comprehensive theory of light and vision. He proposed the idea that we see objects because light streams out of our eyes and touches them. Although not correct, this became the foundation on which later Greek philosophers and mathematicians, such as Euclid, based some of the most important theories on light, vision and optics.

Sources: Philosophize This! (http://www.philosophizethis.org) | Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com) | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu) | Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/biography)


Heraclitus of Ephesus

Heraclitus in Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Public Domain.

Heraclitus was a philosopher from Ancient Greece. From what I have heard and read, he sounds like he wasn’t the most sociable of people, and actually looked down on most people in terms of intelligence.

“Of this Word’s being forever do men prove to be uncomprehending, both before they hear and once they have heard it … Other men are unaware of what they do when they are awake just as they are forgetful of what they do when they are asleep.” (Diels-Kranz 22B1)

This view is probably best summed up by his death. The story goes that he started suffering from Edema (a condition where the body starts building up excess fluids). He set about asking the doctors around for their advice, but concluded he was smarter than them, and came up with his own treatment. This treatment (there’s a couple of versions of the story) involved him covering himself with cow manure and sitting in the hot sun. The thinking was probably that the manure would heat up and absorb his excess fluids, however he ended up dying in that pile of cow dung.

He is perhaps most famous for his idea of the “Logos”, which translates as ‘reason’ or ‘word’. Though open to interpretation, he described this Logos as the thing that governs the universe. He claimed it is the link between things that are opposites (i.e. hot and cold, good and evil, wet and dry, happy and sad). His idea was that opposites constantly change, like day to night and back to day, and create a balance.

Continuing on from this theme, he famously made a statement regarding the nature of a river…

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow” (Diels-Kranz 22B12)

He is essentially pointing out that although the water particles in a river are constantly changing as it flows, the river is thought to be the same river.

That made me think about what actually goes into defining something, and reminds me of a conversation with a friend recently; ‘can a chocolate bar that’s melted into a different shape, be the same chocolate bar it originally was, if you were to rearrange it back into it’s original form?’

That’s my mini summary on Heraclitus. For further research, you may wish to read about his thoughts on fire!

Sources: Philosophize This! (http://www.philosophizethis.org) | Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com) | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu) | Britannica (http://www.britannica.com)

Thales of Miletus

By Ernst Wallis et al – own scan, Public Domain

Thales is known to be the first philosopher (by the majority of people, anyway). He came from Miletus in Ancient Greece, and is also known for being a mathematician and astronomer.

He existed in a time where most of the beliefs generally involved everything being attributed to a divine force. Thales questioned these beliefs, and came up with rational explanations for various phenomena.

There is an anecdote about Thales involving olive presses. At the time, most of the people associated good harvests with a god being happy or sad with them. Thales linked it instead to the weather, and predicted a good harvest ahead. He then went out and bought all the olive presses, and when the harvest turned out to be great, reaped in the profits. Apparently, he didn’t do it for the money, but to prove that philosophy could be useful!

There arem’t any writings by Thales that survived, however another philosopher (Aristotle) described one of Thales’ theories; the theory that everything is made up from particles of water.

‘Thales says that it [the nature of things] is water” (Metaphysics 983 b20)

His idea was probably based around the fact that water can change into different states (i.e. water exists as a liquid, as a solid in the form of ice, and as a gas in the form of steam). He also believed that the earth was floating on water.

‘Thales . . . declared that the earth rests on water” Metaphysics (983 b21)

Although he was wrong about water being the fundamental thing that everything else is made from, it’s fascinating he thought about this considering the knowledge and thoughts at the time.

Well, that’s my brief summary of what I learnt about Thales. I’ll leave you to go and find out about his mathematical theorems, and maybe even the statements about magnets being alive!

Sources: Philosophize This! (http://www.philosophizethis.org) | Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com) | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/thales)